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Faith in the Full Court

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When injuries send two best friends to the bench, they turn to their faith, and to each other.

TWO BEST FRIENDS sit at the end of the bench, perched on black folding chairs, a basketball game spooling out across the hardwood in front of them. Rodney Williams’ hands are clasped, his elbows on his knees. Major Canady leans back, his tan boots resting just behind the sideline. Solemn expressions paint their unflinching faces.

They want more than anything to hear their coach send them to the scorer’s table. “You’re in.” They want to pull down a rebound, drill a jumper — anything. They’re supposed to be out there, helping their team on this unseasonably warm night in the first week of January. But instead, they’re both sidelined by injuries.

At timeouts, they huddle with the team and listen to their head coach lecture their teammates on defensive shortcomings. Against the droning silence of a small crowd, the coach’s fiery voice bursts out of the crowded mass of white jerseys. The two young men in dress clothes stand on the fringe, listening, staring at the ground.


IT ALL BEGAN the week of Halloween, two weeks before the first game of the 2014-15 college basketball season. Eleven players locked in another pre-season practice, racing up and down the hardwood at the corner of 34th and Market streets. James “Bruiser” Flint, the head coach of the Drexel University men’s basketball team, barked instructions. Assistant coaches watched, players labored and sneakers squeaked as a young team eager to find its identity prepared for a four-month campaign.

Just over a dozen days from starting its season in Boulder, Colorado, the team was ready to begin a new era — and so was Major Canady.

The sophomore point guard felt like a volcano on the edge of eruption. He spent his first year in University City dutifully backing up senior point guard Frantz Massenat, one of the best players in Drexel history. Massenat didn’t miss a single start in his four-year career, which meant Canady had to wait a year to take over Flint’s offense. That was the plan; Flint had recruited him with exactly that intention.

The coach told him he would be expected to develop in his first year in the program, and Canady did just that. He worked, and he learned, and by the end of the season he was seeing consistent minutes as part of the team’s supporting cast. He paid his dues.

Two weeks from tipoff, he was practicing in the Daskalakis Athletic Center, then empty. Soon it would be filled with fellow students clad in gold T-shirts, cheering for him: Major Canady, number 25, starting point guard for the Drexel Dragons. He hustled for a loose ball — and then, in an instant, it all fell apart.

He wouldn’t play a single minute all season. He would have to play the waiting game all over again.

It happened during a shell drill: four-on-four; half-court; working on defense, the cornerstone of Flint’s teams. Canady raced for that loose ball, going all-out in preparation for the first start that now wouldn’t come for another year. One of his teammates — he won’t say who — fell on top of him, weight crashing down all at once on Canady’s right ankle.

Dislocated.

His ankle, his starting position and everything he worked for through a long, sweltering summer.

“It happened all in slow motion,” Canady says two and a half months after the injury, over a din of pop songs and pep band practice in the background. It’s early January now, and he’s sitting in the sixth row of the bleachers at the east end of the court, where he suffered the first injury of his basketball career.

His team — his team, the one he was supposed to run this winter, the one he was supposed to help lead — has won just three of its first 15 games and is three hours away from losing to James Madison University. The Dragons will score just 35 points tonight, tying the lowest output of Flint’s 14-year tenure with the school.

There is nothing Canady can do. He can’t even throw on the Dragons’ new uniforms, the ones he modeled in a pre-season photo shoot two weeks before his injury. He’s wearing a gray sweater, khaki cargo pants and a pair of unblemished Timberland boots. The footwear is a sign of progress; he was cleared to walk without a boot just a few days earlier. He still walks with a slight limp, but says he feels as strong as he has since the injury. He looks blankly at the court as he recalls the scene in that late October practice.

“I saw it happening, and it just …”

He pauses and takes a short breath.

“You couldn’t prevent it.”

Rodney Williams, standing in his kitchen. Photo by: Adam Hermann The Triangle

HERE IS A chiseled athlete, tall and sturdy, reduced to a slow amble as he walks towards the bleachers. He wears a dark charcoal suit, a light blue dress shirt and a canary yellow bowtie with navy blue polka dots. Drexel Dragons colors. It’s early January, and another injured basketball player is talking about a right foot injury that derailed his season.

Williams was ready for this season, too. After senior forward Kazembe Abif went down with a torn ACL in April, Williams rocketed to the head of the Dragons’ front court. Just a sophomore, Williams was suddenly the team’s most experienced forward. Rather than shy away from the role, the outgoing young man was determined to embrace it head-on.

Williams knew Flint would come after him hard in practice. He knew that Flint would make an example of him when he made a mistake, to teach the younger forwards; he knew that Flint would dog him when he didn’t give his all on a drill; and he was OK with all of that, because his coach knew what he could become if he worked his tail off — and more than anything, he just wanted to play.

During his freshman year, Williams gained a reputation as an offensive-minded big man, throwing home athletic dunks and flashing whirlwind spin moves in the paint. He was going to do his best to put Drexel on his shoulders and turn its guard-oriented offense into a well-rounded attack.

Instead, Williams sports a walking boot midway through the season. He doesn’t know if he’ll play again as a sophomore. The team’s doctors are saying late February, but the school’s sports information director grimaces at that timeline. It’s a guessing game.

Williams has a stress fracture in his right foot. He played with the injury for a handful of games before succumbing to the pain and letting his trainers in on his aching little secret.

At least Williams, the tall, sturdy, chiseled sophomore forward with great expectations, played 10 games this year. That’s 10 more games than Canady, his best friend, was afforded this season. Not that this is any comfort now.

Williams’ goal before the season was to be named to the Colonial Athletic Association’s All-Conference team in March. His new goal is to get back on the floor before his college career is half over.


IT'S MORE THAN injuries to the same foot in the same season that bond Canady and Williams. They’ll be sure to tell you that. The two have been best friends for two years, in large part because their connection reaches way past basketball.

Talking just outside the Drexel media room, two floors and one hallway from the court where their teammates pulled out a 53-51 win over the College of Charleston in the third week of January, they rattle off their similarities like they’ve been rehearsing it each day for, well, two years.

They graduated from high school on the same day. They scored 37 points, career highs for both, on the same night of their senior year of high school. Their teams lost those games, despite their best efforts. They’re both the leading scorers in the history of their high schools. They secretly committed to Drexel on the same day. Their fathers belong to the same fraternity. Oh, and both their fathers are pastors. That’s the big one.

Because, for the longest time, Williams wasn’t interested in coming to Drexel. He had heard of the school, of course, and knew he was being recruited, at least a little bit, by the program from Philadelphia. The Richmond, Virginia, native had watched Drexel fall to Virginia Commonwealth University in the CAA championship game in March of 2012, ending the Dragons’ NCAA Tournament hopes after a season that included a 19-game win streak.

Williams thought the school wasn’t for him. He’d been scheduled to visit Drexel when he made a trip to Philadelphia to visit Saint Joseph’s University, but decided he wasn’t interested. He told his father to cancel the visit to 34th and Market. But Rodney Williams Sr., a pastor, told his son to wait — just give it a shot. See what it’s like.

Then he received a phone call.

The Friday before Williams’ scheduled visit to Drexel, Canady was taking his visit. At dinner with the coaches, assistant coach Bobby Jordan told Canady that another recruit was scheduled to make his visit the following week. He was named Rodney Williams, and just like Canady, Williams was a pastor’s son. Jordan said the two would hit it off, and that Canady ought to drop Williams a line. What could it hurt? So Canady called the kid.

They weren’t exactly the same. Canady is Baptist; Williams is Apostolic. But they both had faith. They both pray daily and keep their Bibles close. Williams keeps his on his phone; he likes to have the scriptures handy.

They were able to talk — really talk — about religion. Williams had seen so many people growing up who called themselves religious and talked about God, but who never scratched the surface of what believing in God really meant. In Canady, he had someone else who grew up in the church. He had an equal.

“Me and Rod often have talks about our religion,” Canady said. “Some people… not to step on any toes, but they say what they feel needs to be said. It’s real for me. We go to church pretty much every Sunday we can, and like I said, we know that without God we wouldn’t be where we are. I read my Bible every day. I try my best to pray every day. We pray before every game during ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ We stand besides each other, quietly, with different prayers.”

The call was just the bump Williams needed to reconsider Drexel. He visited Drexel’s campus after all. Guess what? He liked it. He called Canady after the visit. Okay, he told his new friend. Let’s do this.

Williams says that as soon as he spoke with Canady on the phone, he felt something different. He felt something was right about the situation, befriending another pastor’s son, someone who would understand his stance on the world. Growing up a pastor’s son isn’t a normal life — it isn’t just going to parochial school; it’s not another middle schooler sitting through church, eyes drooping.

“It’s always the pressure of, you’ve got to be the good kid,” Canady explained. “Everyone looks to you like, if you do something, they’re going to tell your parents. With other kids, it’s whatever.”

“There’s the pressure of trying to be perfect,” Williams added. “My father always said there’s always eyes on the first family, so you have to try to keep things in order.”

Canady quickly clarified. “It wasn’t too hard to be a pastor’s son, really.” There were perks. “Everybody at the church loves you.” Williams said he’s glad his father raised him the way he did. He liked the road of spirituality his father sent him down. It gave him purpose, and kept him focused.

From their first meeting, when they moved into their apartment located three minutes away from the DAC, Williams and Canady have been kindred spirits. They share a rapport reserved for best friends. Each delegates to the other when asked to describe their relationship, exchanging sheepish glances before Williams gestures to Canady. “You go.”

They say the same things, anyway. They talk about the way they lean on each other more than any other teammates. Canady explains how much time they spend together — “literally all the time” — before Williams says how much it’s meant to have someone like Canady since they arrived.

Williams mentions that they have a plan: to go out on top as fellow seniors, and to graduate together.

And then it dawns on the two young men that their plan isn’t going to pan out anymore. After his injury, Canady applied for a medical redshirt, so he gets this year back. When the 2015-16 season rolls around nine months from now, Canady will still have three years of eligibility left. Because Williams has already played 10 games this year, he’ll only have two.

For the first time since the two arrived on campus, they don’t have something in common.

Major Canady, standing in his kitchen. Photo by: Adam Hermann The Triangle

CANADY COULDN’T BRING himself to tell his parents about his injury. Ask his teammates, he said. He cried like a baby the first two days after it happened. He couldn’t tell his parents. He couldn’t do it.

Not after he had endured the vitriol, spiteful and bitter, from people who told him he wouldn’t be able to make it to a Division I program coming from Wilson, North Carolina. Wilson, a town of less than 50,000 when Canady lived there for the first 15 years of his life, is not exactly a breeding ground for major college talent. Once widely known as “The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market,” Wilson is an hour-long drive at rush hour on U.S. Route 264 from Raleigh. The city had just four public high schools. Competition wasn’t high, except within the team itself, where Canady struggled to see much playing time during his first two years at James Hunt High School.

After his sophomore year, Canady had little to show for his time spent bench warming. As a high school player, sophomore year is the year you’re supposed to start drumming up faint murmurs in recruiting circles. Canady hadn’t stirred a single decibel.

So he began to pray — in a big way. Every day, and multiple times a day, hoping for an answer or a direction. As a pastor’s son, he was always religious. He always believed in God. But this was something different. This time, he turned to God like he never had before.

“I prayed that God would make my dreams come true,” Canady said, “and He did.”

At the end of Canady’s sophomore year, his father, Rev. Darryl T. Canady, received a job offer to become a pastor at Rodman Street Missionary Baptist Church in Pittsburgh. He and his family would have to pick up and move everything from Wilson and head north … but it was a great offer, and it landed his son a second chance.

There, 450 miles north of Wilson, Canady had a chance to start anew and keep chasing his dream of being that starting Division I point guard people told him he would never be. He started over at The Kiski School, an all-boys boarding school in Saltsburg with a solid basketball program and an opening for him. Shooting and slashing his way to over 1,000 points in just two years, Canady became the school’s all-time leading scorer. He grabbed headlines in the high school section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and caught the eye of “Bruiser” Flint, who would make Canady’s dream of being a starting Division I point guard come true.

Or, at least, he would try.

It didn’t happen last year, waiting behind Massenat, dreaming of eventually taking it all over and proving he was supposed to be here. And then, with one drill gone awry, it didn’t happen this year, either.

“I was numb for a few days,” Canady admitted.

He made assistant coach Matt Collier call his parents and tell them that their son had an ankle injury. That he would miss the entire season. That he would be bed-ridden for a few weeks, his rehab would be glacially slow and he would have to return home for four days after his surgery.

His mother took it well, better than Canady thought she would. His father — the pastor, the driving inspiration in Major’s faith-driven life — didn’t.

“My mom was understanding,” he explains as he fiddles with his thumb. “She was like, ‘You know, this happens to everybody but you’re going to be okay. You’re going to come back stronger.’ My dad definitely took it really, really hard. He almost wanted to cry for me, like he was the one who was injured.”

Canady’s father was as excited as his son for this season. It was the one they had waited for, moved cities and states for, and prayed nightly for together. When he went home after surgery, Canady’s mobility was limited. He couldn’t make it to church. So the family prayed together for those four days.

When he returned to his apartment in Philadelphia, before he was able to go to church, Canady watched his father’s services online each weekend. He laid in bed and gingerly stepped through each emotional hoop as his father preached on a laptop screen, migrating from depression to anger much faster than anger to anything else. But the anger and depression were tolerable. So was the eventual disappointment — because of his faith.

“If I didn’t have God,” Canady said, “I don’t know where I would be, mentally. Without God, I don’t think I would’ve been able to have gotten through the situation. Of course my teammates are always there, my coaches have been there, my coaches were real worried about me and checked on me, my friends outside of basketball. But God is the reason.”

Canady grew up with God. He prayed to God, he said, and God listened. God put him in Saltsburg and then in Philadelphia. If he is hurt right now, Canady believes he’s supposed to be hurt right now. He’s doing his best to keep faith.

Ambassador Seed of Love Church, Jan. 25. Photo by: Adam Hermann The Triangle

ON THE 1700 block of Susquehanna Avenue, tucked away amidst faded storefronts and chain link fences, worn-down row houses and the occasional set of boarded-up windows, sits a church. One glance at the building won’t betray what lies inside. Metal shutters drawn over the windows dress it up as a convenience store closed on Sundays. The only hints of what goes on inside are the old-fashioned plastic sign that reads “Ambassador Seed of Love Church,” and the cream-colored PT Cruiser parked out front with a decal on the right side that reads “Praying is what I do.”

Rodney Williams is used to churches like this one. His father, Rodney Williams Sr., was a pastor with a church much larger than this storefront site. Then he bought a city block in Richmond, Virginia, which came with a grocery store and a liquor store. The Rev. Williams let the grocery store be, but renovated the liquor store and turned it into Strong Tower Pentecostal Ministries, where he serves today. So Williams feels right at home in the storefront church in North Philadelphia, which his father told him to try when he came to Philadelphia for school.

It’s late January, the Sunday after Drexel’s narrow victory over the College of Charleston, when Williams walks into Ambassador Seed of Love with his girlfriend, Taylor. He wears a blue dress shirt pocked with white dots and a gold tie, Drexel Dragons colors.

A man shakes his hand at the door and says to Williams, “I saw you on TV the other day.” He means the previous weekend, when Drexel squared off against the University of Delaware. Williams thanks him with a sheepish grin and stops to talk with the man for a few minutes.

Williams still hasn’t played in nearly a month, but the Dragons have won three of their last six games. Better still, Williams finally received some good news this week. His walking boot is gone, and his foot has healed. He’s been cleared to play in the next game, that Wednesday against Northeastern University.

When he was rehabbing the injury, Williams would take off his walking boot and drive to the church every Sunday he didn’t have to be with the team. When he called his father with the news of his injury in late December, his father told him that it was meant to be, that God always had a plan. These things are easier to believe when you’re surrounded by people who share your faith.

But now the boot is off. For the first time this calendar year, Williams walks into his church and knows he won’t have to pray for a return to the court. It’s finally here. Williams has thanks to give.

The walls of the church are key lime green, the pillars marking the center aisle forest green with ornate gold trim. The seats, banquet hall chairs, have green slip covers on the backs. But there won’t be too much sitting this afternoon.

Williams is Apostolic, a denomination of the Pentecostal church. For the uninitiated, Pentecostal churches are raucous. Lively. It’s not your prim, proper church service with programmatic kneeling and an emphasis on reverent silence. Here in North Philadelphia, impulse is applauded. Passion is dignified. And the music is soulful: drums, bass guitar, electronic organ and even trumpet blare, a crescendo of faith and hand clapping. The resident drummer thump-thumps the bass drum through your chest cavity and smashes the damaged cymbals, both missing good portions along the rim from the passionate bashing each week.

Williams has attended Pentecostal churches his entire life. He loves the commotion, loves getting swept up in the emotion and the noise. He seems to be holding back this afternoon, but he can’t help tapping that fast-healing right foot along with the kick of the bass drum. Williams plays drums and has played in church a few times. He can’t help it. It’s something in him.

In the middle of the service, a jam breaks out with the pianist, the drummer, the trumpet player and the six singers in the front of the church, all riffing and improvising. In the middle of the song, which lasts about 20 minutes, the lead singer is inspired. “Grateful!” she bellows, and the gathered crowd repeats after her on the down beat. “Grateful!” she sings again. The call-and-response goes on for two more minutes. Williams nods his head to the rhythm and closes his eyes for just a few moments. “Grateful!”

During the car ride home, Williams can’t stop talking about his comeback game. He just can’t wait to get back on the floor, he says. He rattles off a list of the teams he can’t wait to play. James Madison, to get revenge for the brutal loss the Dragons endured at home earlier this season as he sat on the bench. Northeastern University, which is this Wednesday, for kind of “throwing [him] in the fire” against all-conference senior forward Scott Eatherton. The College of William & Mary, the team he wants to beat most of all, the team he wanted to play for in college but never did. His whole family plans to attend the game against William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, a 50-minute drive from Richmond.

Williams says he knows he lost a lot of time this season, but it’s okay. He says it was God’s plan. He says all he can do with the time he has left this season is make a statement. He still hasn’t given up on being named to one of the All-Conference teams at the end of the year.

“Maybe third-team all-conference,” he says.


AN HOUR BEFORE Drexel and Northeastern tipoff Jan. 28, Williams shoots around with his teammates for the first time in exactly a month. He moves a little slowly, taking passes from assistant coach Mike Connors and laying in two-footers. A member of the pep band comes and sits next to me on press row for a few minutes.

“Rod looks a little rusty,” he says. “A little cautious. I haven’t seen his smile.”

Williams finishes the drill and walks slowly towards half court. When he turns around, a teammate hits him with a solid chest pass. Williams looks at the ball, takes two steps, plants his right foot, throws down a one-handed slam dunk. And there it is, as if on cue: The same smile he flashed when he and Taylor traded jokes after church the previous Sunday. It’s the smile that sneaks out when he cracks a joke during an interview. He smiles like that when he’s around people who make him comfortable, in a place that makes him comfortable.

After the game, Canady said it felt good to see some people smile who haven’t smiled for a really long time. He doesn’t name names. He doesn’t have to.

Williams checks into the game early in the first half, and even though the crowd is sparse, he gets a small ovation from the pep band and the assembled student section. He alters a shot from Northeastern’s Eatherton, and on the ensuing offensive possession gets the ball down low and goes for a hook shot in the lane. The move looks smooth and his right foot looks strong, but his shot is off target. Just a little rusty.

Williams finishes the night with four points and four rebounds. He plays 26 minutes. After the game, he waits outside the media room in a white compression shirt with a white towel in hand.

How did he feel out there tonight?

“Tired,” he said, and he let out a big laugh.

The John A. Daskalakis Center, hours before Drexel University faced Northeastern University on Jan. 28. Photo by: Adam Hermann The Triangle

THE DAY AFTER Williams’ comeback, Canady has his last X-ray. It comes back all green lights. He’s allowed to start jogging in practices, instead of just walking. Even better, he can take jump shots again. He hasn’t taken one since that practice the week of Halloween.

“Getting close,” he says.

The win over Northeastern marks the first time this year the Dragons have won back-to-back games. It bumps them up to sixth in the conference. Three days later, they top the University of North Carolina Wilmington at home. The Dragons set a season high with 85 points. Williams scores 13. Momentum is starting to build, and for the first time in a long time, the Drexel men’s basketball team is having fun.

Canady sports a wide grin when he talks about how excited he is, seeing the team turn it around like this. But he can’t seem to shake the feeling that he’s starting to fall behind.

He has Williams to lean on, sure. But Williams’ back playing in the games. There’s a different dynamic there now. One of them is still hurt, but the other is back on the floor. Canady has God and his faith to fall back on, of course. But God isn’t going to put him in the game in the second quarter.

Canady sat at the end of the bench again as the Dragons rolled to the win over Northeastern, wearing a blue sweater and a pair of khaki pants, those same boots parked just behind the boundary line. For the first time since mid-December, he did so without his best friend beside him. This time it felt a little lonelier as his teammates celebrated their victory.

“It’s kind of a weird place,” he said after the game. “You’re happy for your team, but it’s like you kind of aren’t really a part of it. The emotional attachment isn’t the same. You almost feel like a fan.

“It’s like, you mourn with them when you lose, but then when you win you’re happy for them instead of with them. It’s like you’re not really a part of it. When it’s going good, you’re not really a part of it.”

And the isolation isn’t just mental anymore. The team leaves for a two-game road trip this week, and Canady won’t be boarding the bus with his teammates. Because he’s been cleared to jog and take jump shots, Flint wants his injured point guard to focus on his rehab and his schoolwork. He says he wants Canady to hit the ground running when he’s fully back. But at this point in the season, it doesn’t matter how rehabbed he is. The team could go all the way to the NCAA tournament game, and Canady would still be sitting at the end of the bench, his feet still planted just out of bounds.

Still, Canady’s faith hasn’t wavered. Not for one second in the past month. Not for one second since the day of his injury.

On the first Monday of February, he sits in his second-floor apartment, the room slightly disheveled from the Super Bowl get-together he and Williams cooked up the night before. Canady is a New England Patriots fans. The first thing he says when I mention the game is, “Tom Brady, G-O-A-T.” Greatest of all time.

He’s in a good mood this evening, dressed in all Drexel gear. The Dragons just finished their evening practice, his second since being cleared to jog and jump. He feels like he’s getting back into the swing of things. The first few shots, he admits, were nerve-wracking, but it’s good to be back with his teammates.

He sits on the couch in the sparsely decorated living room and doesn’t seem to have a care in the world as we talk about the Super Bowl and I check, just one last time, to see if this is all an act.

When we switch to the Dragons, he’s resolute. He’s confident this season will pay off. He swears he’s not worried about freshman point guard Rashann London taking the starting point guard job next season. Will it be worth going through this season just to miss the starting job all over again?

“Everything happens for a reason,” he says, confident as ever. He’s said so a dozen times this month. “I missed this season for a reason. I think Rashann getting this year of experience as a point guard makes us even stronger next year.”

He says his mother used to repeat a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was growing up.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen in the future. I don’t. But I believe that God has my future in my hands, and he’s never going to do anything to harm me.”

With that he shakes my hand, I walk out of his apartment, and Major Canady closes the door behind me, content to wait another day for a moment that may never come.

Colophon

Article Design and Layout by Noel Forté

Reported and Authored by Adam Hermann

Senior Edited by Chad Hermann

Special Thanks to: Rodney Williams & Major Canady